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You must be one of those hardened criminals that corrupts the younger offender.

Movie

The Anderson Tapes
(1971)

 

A cult curio. Simultaneously ahead of its time in its pre-Watergate grasp of all-pervading surveillance and behind it in its quirky technique, this second collaboration between Sean Connery and Sidney Lumet succeeds in both engaging and being vaguely dissatisfying. The essential problem is that Lumet probably wasn’t the ideal guy for the job. The Anderson Tapes needed someone with a much tighter control of the frame; indeed, this would probably be the Brian De Palma picture, if only it hadn’t been another half decade before he had the clout to command this sort of budget.

Lumet commented of the picture that “It’s actually very simply done, and that’s part of why it’s so much fun and so gay and it’s got life in it. It’s because there’s very little directorial composition” (in Sidney Lumet: Interviews) Conversely, I think that’s the reason the surveillance side, complete with rather atonal electronica courtesy of the Quincy Jones soundtrack, never really clicks as it should in terms of the attempts to suggest pervasive paranoia.

In part, there’s a key intentional aspect to this in the Frank Pierson (Dog Day AfternoonPresumed Innocent) screenplay, an adaptation of Lawrence Sanders’ novel. None of the various surveillance parties (PI, DEA, FBI, IRS) are actually after Connery’s Duke Anderson; in his quest to stage his burglary, he merely slips – or lumbers – between various operations and stings, but none of these preoccupied agencies are interested in following up on his motives.

There’s considerable opportunity for satire here, or even just knockabout jokes at the expense of government bodies getting in each other’s way (as The President’s Analyst played on about five years earlier). One might posit the currently percolating idea that all this surveillance doesn’t add up to much if you don’t know what you’re looking for (which is what why we “need” the AIs), but again, Lumet just sort of leaves any significance hanging there.

The likes of The Conversation and Blow Out made much of the paranoia element of being monitored, but since Anderson is mostly unaware he’s being watched (except when girlfriend Dyan Cannon’s rich gentleman friend reveals he knows everything), it has no impact on the operation. There’s a dramatic disconnect here, and because the nature of the agency operations is, for the most part, intentionally oblique, little tension is generated for the viewer. At best, they provoke mild curiosity.

The robbery element is more effective, much of it flourishing the iconography of your classic heist (boiler suits and facemasks). Well, I say more effective. There’s never any sense that Anderson has much in the way of smarts; he’s no Danny Ocean, that’s for sure (although Connery, famously going rugless for the first time, has a haircut that slight resembles Clooney’s mid-90s look). He’s no sooner released from a ten-year stretch and reunited with Dyan Cannon’s Ingrid than he’s deciding to pull a job on her entire apartment building. Very sensible if you’re intent on covering your tracks. He secures mob financing, but they require him to bring along and plug a dodgy thug as part of the deal (Val Avery’s Socks); any self-respecting safe cracker would call the whole thing off there and then.

On the surface, Anderson seems to have done his homework, bringing in old associate Haskins (Martin Balsam having a ball camping it up) to figure out the necessaries in casing the joint. However, he also makes a series of odd choices, sentimentally including Stan Gottlieb’s old-timer Pop, who really isn’t up to it, and taking at face value paraplegic kid Jimmy (Paul Benjamin) when he attests he can’t do anything to impede their robbery in progress (Anderson is out of the door and Jimmy is straight into his cupboard and on his ham radio). Anyone who’s a stickler for a precision operation would have a fit.

But the dynamic of this section of the picture is tense and commanding – Pauline Kael called it “energetic but coarsely made” – particularly when we can see the police actions outside. It’s like a test run for the siege of Lumet’s later Dog Day Afternoon. The New York location filming is a highlight, as it would be for that film. An additional conceit of flashforwards is thrown into the mix when the crew are looting the individual apartments, with the victims interviewed about their experiences. Again, though, it doesn’t add up to very much (albeit, there are some nice character sketches among them, including an old lady who enjoys being robbed and the guy who’d rather see his wife beaten up than give away the combination of his safe).

Indeed, when the police are in the building and the gang make their failed escape, the picture is all set for Anderson’s escape… which comes to nothing. The cops rather “fortunately” hear Connery breathing on one of the surveillance devices at an opportune moment and his plans are scuppered. You can see the fingerprints of the ending that wasn’t here; Connery was originally intended to take off in a van pursed by helicopters, but Columbia nixed it on the grounds of higher moral codes away from the debauched theatres: “They were afraid they wouldn’t get a good TV sale” as Lumet put it.

Connery’s really good, of course. He’s the glue that holds The Anderson Tapes together. But Anderson is a strangely drawn character. He appears to be a decent enough boyfriend, yet begins the picture with an ugly analogy comparing safecracking to rape – is it just to impress his fellow inmates? Christopher Bray, in Connery: Measure of a Man, refers to the original novel presenting his character as “an existential individualist whose every crime is seen as a noble challenge to the authority of an overweening state”. There’s little of that kind of self-awareness on display, except in Anderson’s cynicism regarding the illusory difference between the legal and illegal; he launches into a tirade against advertising, marriage, the stock market, and he takes apart the basis of insurance companies, suggesting that stealing from someone who is insured benefits everyone – the victim, the company, and the police – before amending his perspective to a more perfunctory “It’s bullshit. It’s just dog eat dog, but I want the first bite”.

There’s also strong soiled support from the likes of Avery and Alan King (as mob guy Angelo, who has misgivings over Anderson’s work). Christopher Walken is fully formed and charismatic in his role as fellow ex-con the Kid; he’d do little notable screen work between then and his Oscar-winning turn The Deer Hunter seven years later.

The Anderson Tapes culminates in the various agencies ordering the erasure of their illegal recordings; the idea that the government would now erase anything pertaining to constant surveillance of its citizens, legal or otherwise, is entirely laughable, of course (just look around you, if they’ll let you outside to do so). One of those offbeat thrillers the ’70s managed to turn out quite regularly, but one definitely comes away feeling that another director could have turned it into a classic.

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